Is it too far a stretch of the imagination to think that quite literally knowing your position in the workplace delivers a superior workplace experience? Could it simply be that you know what to expect of the place and its immediate surroundings? Is the uncertainty associated with seeking out an unassigned seat burdening employees with unnecessary anxiety? Even the best workplaces have pain points, irritants, annoyances: the morning queue for the lift, the absence of plug sockets in breakout spaces, the search for a meeting room, the coffee too hot / too bitter / too strong / too weak, the colleague with the annoying laugh. But, is knowing what annoyances await you somehow better than having to guess which ones might await you in a work environment lottery?
In a somewhat uncomfortable 2016 University College London (UCL) Institute of Neurology experiment, researchers concluded that knowing there is a small chance you might get a painful electric shock leads to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely be shocked.
The study’s lead author, Archy de Berker: “It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t” This was the first time the effect of uncertainty on stress has been quantified, but the concept is likely to be familiar to many people and is why apps like Uber show you exactly where your car is en route. The car might be late, but you know how late.
Co-author of the UCL study, Dr Robb Rutledge, suggests “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious.”
These findings leave us wondering whether this is what employees face on their daily commute to unassigned work settings—not knowing what faces them or who faces them. And whilst real estate advisors might not like the idea, it could well be the case that the cost savings offered by unassigned seating strategies (almost always as a component of tightened occupant densities) will save on headline rent but will cost their clients significantly more in reduced employee experience.
How might this workplace level, geopolitical uncertainty manifest in real terms? Well perhaps it could be that those employees now with unassigned seat positions, which the programme leader romantically describes as newly empowered digital nomads, actually see themselves as refugees whose previous communities were razed, leaving them with nothing more than they can cram in a locker. Whilst these employees might still have a compelling direction, has their sense of a strong structure and a supportive context been unintentionally eroded?
This issue of The Leesman Review probes the subject of uncertainty, and on the 50th anniversary of that one giant leap into the unknown, we extract lessons from channel swimmers and submarine commanders. And we ask you to consider whether the erosive influence of uncertainty is undermining employees’ daily workplace experience, or whether it is societally inevitable and something we just have to learn to get used to.